How to Write an Outline

By Stacie Heaps
Professional Writer and Editor

Unless you are writing a very short, simple document, you should begin the writing process with an outline in order to guide your writing. An outline is a document that briefly summarizes the information that will be included in a paper, book, speech, or similar document. It shows the order in which the information will be presented and indicates the relationship of the pieces of information to each other.

Outlines are important because not only do they allow you to map your thoughts into a coherent, logical organization, they also let you know early in the writing process if an idea for a paper, book, or other project just isn't going to pan out because you don't have enough supporting material or information or because the idea simply isn't sound. Moreover, outlines indicate early on whether you have left out important information or added superfluous ideas. Fortunately, word processors have made writing outlines (and papers) much simpler because they make it very easy to add, delete, reorganize, or even completely revamp information as much and as often as necessary.

Writing an outline is also a great remedy to writer's block, as it allows you to express your ideas briefly without getting unduly bogged down in the details or in correct grammar or word choice too early on in the writing process.

Writing the Outline

Before beginning your outline, you want to have your preliminary research done—you can't write an outline until you know more or less what it is you are going to talk about. After you have researched your topic, you can then determine your thesis, or the main idea or point that you want to argue in your document. After deciding on a thesis statement, you need to identify several supporting points that substantiate your thesis. These supporting points will be the main ideas of your outline.

At the top of the page, write your thesis statement, and then below that, organize the supporting points in a logical order that best supports the thesis of your document (you can always change the order later if you need to). These supporting points are the main categories or topics of your document. Then, add the subcategories or subtopics, which will generally correspond to the supporting paragraphs for each category or topic. And finally, for each subcategory or subtopic, add sub-subcategories or sub-subtopics, if necessary (these can be used to indicate an example or story used to illustrate a supporting point). You generally don't need to include the introduction and conclusion in your outline, although it does not hurt to do so.

In creating your outline, you can, for instance, use a comparison-contrast, cause-and-effect, or problem-solution model, you can give information chronologically, or you can begin with your weakest point and move to your strongest. As you structure your outline, you can use either phrases or complete sentences, but be consistent.

Example:

Thesis: It is important to work.

  1. Work gives us something worthwhile to do
    1. Allows us to use the skills we've learned.
    2. Allows us to gain new skills.
    3. Keeps us from getting into too much trouble.
      1. Too much free time can be detrimental.
        1. Spend all our time watching daytime television.
          1. TV can be addictive.
          2. TV often portrays violence and illegal acts.
          3. TV may cause bad behavior.
        2. Spend all our time playing video games.
          1. Video games can be addictive.
          2. Video games often portray violence and illegal acts.
          3. Video games may cause bad behavior.
        3. Our thoughts can turn to bad or even illegal deeds.
      2. Work allows us to earn money.
        1. With money we can buy the things we need.
        2. We can buy food.
        3. We can buy clothing.
        4. We can buy a car.
        5. We can buy a home.
      3. With money we can help others in need.

When determining whether an idea is a main topic or a supporting point for a topic (that is, a subtopic or sub-subtopic), identify whether or not it adds a new idea of equal value to the other main topics or if it instead supports or explains an idea already stated. If it supports or explains an existing idea, then it should be a subtopic of that topic.

In creating your outline, remember that traditionally, if a topic or category is going to have a subtopic or subcategory, then it should have at least two supporting points that correspond to it. If a topic doesn't require at least two subtopics, then it probably does not need to include a subcategory or subtopic—the sentence or phrase used for the topic can instead be reworded to incorporate the point identified in the subtopic.

In addition, all entries in the outline should be parallel, which is why if you use sentences for some entries, you should use sentences for all entries, or if you use phrases, you should likewise be consistent. If phrases are used, make sure that the phrases follow the same grammatical pattern (that is, nouns are matched with nouns, verb phrases with verb phrases, and so forth).

Not: 

1.0 Life is good.
1.1. Stocks are up.
1.2 Low home prices.

But:

1.0 Life is good.
      1.1 Stocks are up.
      1.2 Home prices are down.

Similarly, topics at the same level should be of equal importance. If they're not, the less important information should be changed to a subtopic of a main topic. Usually, the information in subtopics should be more specific than the information in main topics.

Writing Your Paper
If you have taken your time and written a well-organized, well-thought-out outline, then writing your paper, manuscript, or other document should be relatively easy, especially if you have used the sentence outline format. To write your document, simply use your main topics as the topic sentences of the paragraphs in your paper, and then use your subtopics as your supporting points and the sub-subtopics as the examples or explanatory text. Or for longer papers or books, you would use the main topics as the topic sentences for the introductory paragraphs in a section or chapter (and add other introductory information as needed), and then you would use the subtopics for the topic sentences of the supporting paragraphs, and the sub-subtopics for the sentences that add additional or explanatory text.

Conclusion
Outlines can be an invaluable tool when writing a paper or other document—though not absolutely necessary, they are valuable to a writer in the same way that a blueprint is valuable to a home builder If you take the time to write a good outline, the rest of the writing process can be quite painless—or even enjoyable!

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